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Roberts Court rulings on campaign finance reveal shifting makeup, forceful role

But Smith said the independent spending in many cases has helped challengers who otherwise would be outspent by incumbents. "It has done just what I thought it would: level the playing field and put more races into play," he said.

One of those is in Wisconsin.

Feingold, first elected to the Senate in 1992, does not blame money for his current political woes; a hurting economy and resurgent Republicans are making Wisconsin a politically tough terrain for Democrats this year. And he predicts the real impact of Citizens United will be in the 2012 presidential campaign.

He also notes that the main goal of McCain-Feingold - to stem the flow of unlimited contributions to the political parties - remains the law. The court at the end of last year's term decided not to hear a challenge about "soft money."

In the Citizens United decision, Roberts and Alito wrote separately to say they respected precedent, as they had testified to in confirmation hearings. But they said they had to "balance the importance of having constitutional questions decided against the importance of having them decided right."

Feingold does not buy it.

"Frankly, as far as I'm concerned, they completely disregarded their oaths with regard to those issues," he said. "Which is a serious accusation to make about Supreme Court justices. But I regret to say I think that's what they did."

Since John G. Roberts Jr became chief justice five years ago, focus has been on the Supreme Court's changing makeup and shifting ideology. In the coming months, The Washington Post will examine the real-world consequences of the court's rulings in communities across the nation.

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